Bethel Evangelical Lutheran worshiping Jesus at 8th and N. East Ave. in York, NE.402-363-0022

November 5, 2017 Sermon on Revelation 20

Click HERE for an audio version posted on our Facebook page.

Revelation 20:4-6

Dear Friends in Christ,

There’s a famous scene from the movie “Sixth Sense” in which the little boy says, “I see dead people.” In our Scripture for today the Apostle John tells us that he saw dead people, or at least the souls of people who had died. He says that he saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. That might have included his brother James whom Herod had put to death by the sword, and the Apostle Paul, and a number of other Christians that would have been known to those who would be reading John’s Revelation. God pulled back the veil that separates heaven and earth, the seen and the unseen, and let John look into heaven so that he would be comforted as he faced persecution for his faith, and so that he could comfort everyone throughout history who would also face persecution and see friends or family executed for their faith. He comforts us by reminding us of the power of the first resurrection.

What is the first resurrection? If you read books about the end times that you pick up in the Christian bookstore, or read any translation of this portion of Revelation in anything except Beck’s AAT or the new EHV that we read from today, you might think that the first resurrection is dead believers being raised back to life sometime before the last day. But the Bible doesn’t talk anywhere about two bodily resurrections, one for believers and one for unbelievers. It only talks about a resurrection of all people, believers and unbelievers, on the same day, the last day, when Jesus returns in glory.

What is the first resurrection then? As we let Scripture interpret Scripture, we hear John in his gospel tell us what he means by the first resurrection as he quotes Jesus saying, Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… And
then he said, a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out– those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”

Jesus tells us that the first resurrection happens when a person hears the voice of the Son of God and believes in him as their savior. That person has eternal life. They have crossed over from death to life. They were born dead in trespasses and sin, but now they have been born again. They have been united with Jesus in his resurrection. This is the first resurrection. The second resurrection then is the raising of the body from the grave; everyone’s body, will rise from the dead on the same day, the day on which Jesus says what he said to Lazarus to every person who has ever lived- “Come out! Everyone come out of your graves.” When he does, all the dead, believers and unbelievers, will rise.

As John looks into heaven, he is allowed to see what Jesus promised Martha at the grave of Lazarus. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. John sees believers who had died physically, but whose souls continued to live and
reign with Jesus.

What a comfort this must have been for John as he thought about his brother James, and his fellow apostle Paul, and possibly members of his congregation in Ephesus who had been martyred. They died what seemed to be horrible deaths. But the powers that had been able to kill their bodies had no power over their souls. Their souls continued to live. They were with Jesus, waiting for the last day to come when they would be judges, witnesses who would testify against those who had executed them, confirming that God’s condemnation of their enemies was just.

What a comfort these words are for us today as we celebrate All Saint’s Day and remember our loved ones who have died. They may not have been executed for their faith, but they experienced the ravages of aging, of sickness, or disease, or injury. They confessed their faith in Jesus as their Savior, and so we believe that they too are living and reigning with Christ. They are with James and Paul, waiting for Jesus to return in glory, to raise their body from the grave as a glorious body, and reunite their soul with that resurrected body.

The power of the first resurrection, the assurance that, in Jesus we have eternal life right now, had enabled those whose souls John saw in heaven to give a bold witness to their faith. Even though they were warned that if they didn’t give up their faith in Jesus they would be executed, they continued to testify. John says that reason they were executed, was because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They refused to compromise. They refused to think, “I can just pretend to worship the beast and his image, then I’ll get to live another day. God knows what’s in my heart.” They refused to give false testimony. They refused to be marked, to be identified with anyone or anything but the one true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world to be their Savior.

As our world becomes more and more, not just unchristian, but antichristian, we need to know the power of the first resurrection. Knowing that we have eternal life right now through faith in Jesus enables us to give a bold witness in the face of persecution. It reminds us that we don’t have to fear those who kill the body but have no power over where we spend eternity.

As we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we remember that Luther wrote, “Take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife; let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won, the kingdom ours remaineth.” And, like those John saw, Luther gave strong testimony about Jesus and the word of God in the face of the threat of death. He stood firmly on the truth of Scripture, and testified about Jesus that his is the only Savior. He chose to be declared a heretic and an enemy of the state rather than compromise anything taught by the word of God, or let anything distract from the truth that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus.

Whenever you feel threatened or persecuted for your faith, and you will be persecuted in one way or another, remember the power of the first resurrection. Because God has caused his light to shine in your heart to give you the new life of faith in Jesus, you don’t have to worry about what anyone says or does when you testify about Jesus. If they threaten to kill you, so what? Even if they are successful in ending your physical life, you will continue to live and reign with Jesus.

Those who are part of the first resurrection; those who live and die believing in Jesus as their savior, continue to live and reign with Jesus for a thousand years. The numbers in the book of Revelation are symbolic. One thousand represents a long period of time that God has pre-determined, that has a definite beginning and end set by God. The thousand years John is referring to represents the whole time between Jesus’ first and second coming. When that pre-determined time comes to an end, and only the Father knows when that will be, everyone who has died will be raised from the dead. Their resurrected body will be reunited with their soul. Then the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars– they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. But, blessed and holy is the one who has a share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them. They are the bride of Christ beautifully dressed in the white robe of His righteousness. They enter with Jesus into the New Jerusalem and enjoy the unending celebration of the wedding supper of the Lamb. You can’t be more blessed than that.

John saw dead people; at least the souls of those who had been martyred for their faith. What he learned from what he saw he shares with us. The first resurrection takes place when the Holy Spirit brings you to faith in Jesus through the Gospel in word and sacrament. Because you know that, in Jesus, you have eternal life, that even when you die you continue to live, you have the power to stand firm in the face of persecution and give a bold witness about Jesus and the word of God. You don’t have to fear physical death, the first death, because in Jesus, you know that the second death has no power over you. Therefore, rejoice that the souls of those who have died believing in Jesus are right now living and reigning with him. Continue to testify boldly to all that Jesus is the one and only way of salvation and that the word of God is true. Look forward to that day when you will join James and Paul and John and all who die believing in Jesus, to live and reign with him, body and soul, forever.